PHOTO: A high-speed Wi-Fi enabling radome (top right) atop a Delta Air Lines Airbus A321. (photo by Paul Thompson)
Internet access on planes is something that many of who travel by air regularly now take for granted.
However, like the act of flight itself, using Wi-FI on an aircraft can be a cause of frustrations, thanks to signal loss, a broadband speed too weak to provide any entertainment, or too slow to allow us to work with large files.
Airborne Wi-FI is moving ahead to the next generation, with the installation of high-speed Wi-Fi for aircraft.
While traveling home from Bermuda this week, I was pleasantly surprised to see a bump on top of the Airbus A319 that is known as a radome. This particular radome houses a satellite antenna for Gogo’s 2Ku high-speed satellite Wi-Fi.
Gogo’s 2Ku Wi-Fi can be used from gate to gate, in comparison to traditional airplane Wi-Fi that is only usable above 10,000 feet. Although 2Ku works from gate to gate, Gogo spokeswoman Meredith Payette told me after my flight that Bermuda still doesn’t allow it to be activated until the plane is above 10,000 feet. Yet, it did work all the way to the gate in Atlanta. Once I heard that familiar chime in the cabin, I logged in to Gogo through my iPhone and saw a message on my screen that read, “High performance Satellite Wi-Fi onboard. Speed, usage and other limits may apply.”
The message also read “Suitable for many streaming sites (such as Netflix, HBO Go, and Spotify). I got right to work putting 2Ku through some of the things most travelers would use it for.
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First, I went to Netflix—the one service travelers have longed for more than any other—because what better place than a plane to binge-watch some of your favorite shows? I opened “Minions” which surprisingly only took about 10 seconds to open and begin. The picture was crystal clear, and never paused mid-stream to buffer.
Even when I skipped around, it only took two seconds to move to the new part of the film. I also opened an episode of “House of Cards,” and that took only seven seconds. Yes, I timed these things—for science.
After giving Netflix a once-over I noticed I had 18 app updates waiting on my iPhone. I hate when app updates arrive while I’m traveling! Being a regular Instagram user (shameless plug: flyingphotog), I went to that update, saw that the file size was 47.3MB and held my breath as I clicked the download button. Thirty-four seconds is all it took to install!
There used to be a time where Apple limited update downloads to under 10MB unless you were at home on your own Wi-Fi network. I was seriously impressed with this speed. Once Instagram was updated, I opened the app, and it only took seven seconds to update my feed.
Next, I checked out Twitter (shameless plug: @FlyingPhotog) to see what’s going in the world and because I like to tweet photos while I fly. Twitter opened almost instantly but took about 20 seconds to load the images attached to the tweets in my feed.
I also went to Amazon Prime video, another popular streaming app. I opened their most popular show, “The Grand Tour.” It took 20 seconds to open, but it looked decidedly more pixelated, not nearly as clear as Netflix.
My final test was YouTube. I chose a random video there, which took 15 seconds to load. Once it began playing, it was as sharp and clear as Netflix had been. It never paused to buffer.
During the flight, I received a request via Twitter, from a friend on the ground, so I ran the Speediest app to check the speeds I was getting. I ran five tests over the course of about 100 miles in the sky, over the Atlantic Ocean between Bermuda and the U.S. coast. The scores ranged from 20-23Mbps.
Currently, Gogo 2Ku can be found on over 100 planes at Delta, AeroMexico, and GOL. Eleven other airlines have contracts to install 2Ku on their planes, including American Airlines here in the U.S.
DISCLOSURE: I used a Gogo promotional code to cover the cost of my wifi, which is normally $9.99. Gogo did not know I would be on this flight in advance, and all opinions of the product are solely mine.